A senior member of Cambodia’s National Assembly has called on Australia to reconsider a planned refugee transfer deal with his country, pointing to fears of “negative impacts” including threats to Cambodians’ health.
Kem Sokha, Cambodia’s first vice president of the National Assembly, made the plea in a letter to the Australian Ambassador to Cambodia, Alison Burrows, after he held talks with groups opposed to the transfer that was officially agreed to in September.
Mr Sokha said the meetings had included “Buddhist monks, students, intellects and Khmer people” who had staged protests in Phnom Penh against the transfer of refugees from Nauru Island.
He said concerns were raised of “possible negative impacts which would possibly be caused by economic, social situations”.
International organisations, such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had also expressed “deep apprehension” over the agreement.
Mr Sokha said he understood “their concerns are well-founded ” and called on Australia to “reconsider the transfer of refugees from Nauru to the Kingdom of Cambodia”.
Under the agreement up to 1000 refugees could be transferred with Australia providing Cambodia with $A40 million in aid over four years, in addition to the $A79 million allocated for the 2014-15 financial year.
Mr Sokha, in a telephone interview, said Cambodians feared the refugees from the Australian refugee holding centres may also carry viruses.
He said some Cambodians even raised fears the Ebola virus, ravaging Western African states of Serra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, could be introduced into the country.
“Australia is a big country, it’s not like Cambodia. And (Australia) has many things to support all the refugees,” Mr Sokha said.
“But I wonder why the Australian government cannot support the refugees in their country?”
He called for amendments to the agreement to ensure monitoring of the refugees’ health, including quarantine, as well as fears the refugees may enjoy some degree of legal immunity.
But Khmer Institute for Democracy director, Sorya Sim, said Cambodia had an obligation to take in refugees if there was no violation of human rights.
“Whether Cambodia accepts it or not it’s a moral obligation … now the country can cope with it, that should be fine,” Mr. Sim said.
“Through the (Indochina) war and after the war Cambodian people are lucky to be received by many generous countries,” he said.